RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And all this week, we're looking at the nation's electricity grid. The grid is what connects the nation's power plants to your lights, refrigerator, your radio, but that grid can't handle the amount of solar and wind power that President Obama says the country needs. So, the administration wants to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines.
And as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the government is still trying to figure out how to get people to go along with that.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Here is the problem: It's cheapest to make solar- and wind-powered electricity in the Southwest and Great Plains. Most of the potential consumers of that electricity, however, live in places like, say, Virginia. So, the government wants to build cross-country transmission lines to connect them. And some people, even people who support green energy, don't think it's such a good idea.
Mr. CHRIS MILLER (President, Piedmont Environmental Council): My name is Chris Miller. I'm president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. We're standing at the edge of Manassas Battlefield, a place called Stewart's Hill, where there's a major, 500-kilovolt power line corridor.
JOYCE: A line of steel towers over 100 feet high runs down that corridor, draped with power lines that stretch toward the horizon, looming over a Civil War battlefield.
Mr. MILLER: The plan is to add another set of poles to facilitate the transfer of power from the Ohio River Valley to markets in the Northeast.
JOYCE: Miller says if people were more frugal with electricity, we wouldn't need more power lines. The federal government has set aside $11 billion in its stimulus package for a new grid that would add lines like this one, and also huge cross-country lines to bring wind and solar eastward. But Miller's view is that those new lines may just as easily add dirty power to the grid as green power.
Mr. MILLER: There's a real potential that what you're expanding is the capacity to move coal-fired electrons, and that the cheapest power supply, which are the dirtiest plants, will have access to markets they didn't use to.
JOYCE: That's because when demand for electricity spikes, most grid operators are required to buy the cheapest power first, and that's usually coal.
Here's something else to consider: Does everyone really want renewable energy brought in from distant producers over power lines subsidized by the federal government?
Ian Bowles, the energy secretary for Massachusetts, thinks that might undercut local wind projects.
Mr. IAN BOWLES (Secretary, Massachusetts Department of Energy): When you decide upfront transmission is the problem, then you've put your hand on the scale and said, we want to help out those particularly remote sources of wind and green electricity into a market.
JOYCE: President Obama has picked the man inside the Department of Energy who will try to resolve these competing agendas. He's Jon Wellinghoff, the new chairman at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC.
Mr. JON WELLINGHOFF (Chairman, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission): I think everybody has to play ball. I think we have to realize that we're all in this together and nationally, we do have a huge problem.
JOYCE: But he says local and state politics can be daunting.
Mr. WELLINGHOFF: You have to do siting, where they're going to go, and that's what gets very contentious. Whose backyard are you going to run the line? And that can get to be very difficult. If you have a line that's going to go across 10 states, you have to have each individual state approving that siting as well.
JOYCE: Wellinghoff hopes he'll soon have the authority to overrule states if they balk. FERC had that power until recently, when a federal court took it away. Now, the Senate Energy Committee is writing a bill that would give it back to FERC. The bill has strong support from members of Congress who want to see a new grid built quickly.
Wellinghoff's boss, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, says no matter how much power it has, DOE should not play the bully by simply declaring eminent domain when it wants to build a new line. He says states and citizens have to be partners and enjoy some of the benefits.
Secretary STEVEN CHU (Energy Department): If you just go in and say, I'm going to pass a law that has a huge stick, what will invariably happen is then you end up in lawsuits. We have to think of ways of allowing the people who have the lines passing in their backyards the benefit to them. There's got to be something there.
JOYCE: Chu says DOE is considering incentives for industry to design a coordinated grid.
Sec. CHU: It is very important, for the sake of our national interest, that we do need a coordinated system.
JOYCE: But DOE might also craft some sort of overlay on the existing grid. Among these uncertainties, one thing is sure: Making the grid smarter and greener will cost a huge amount of money - a lot more than the stimulus package has allocated. Chu says over $100 billion over several decades; other estimates are even higher.
Reid Detchon, director of the advocacy group Energy Future Coalition, says Americans have paid big money for a collective benefit before.
Mr. REID DETCHON (Director, Energy Future Coalition): If you accept that there's a national objective here, just as we did with the interstate highway system, then you create the authority to expedite that process at the federal level.
JOYCE: Yet to be determined, though, is who will end up paying for it.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And to find out how new electric lines might affect your state, go to npr.org/grid.
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